The post-Soviet surprises of Chisinau, Moldova

My kind of place: A former workhorse for the Soviet Union, the mostly unsung European capital has old-world charm, writes Kit Gillet.

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Why Chisinau?

Moldova is one of the forgotten corners of Europe – in fact, it is believed to be the least visited country on the continent, with just 11,000 foreign tourists in 2013.

Yet, within the Soviet-era sprawl of its capital there is charm, a real sense of history, and plenty for any visitor to dig his or her teeth into.

Wedged between Romania and Ukraine, the small Republic of Moldova has at various times been part of the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire and neighbouring Romania. Following the Second World War, however, the territory was broken off to form a nominally separate nation, with Chisinau as its capital and control exerted from the Soviet Union. The decades that followed were not kind to the country, but since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 Moldova has slowly been moving forward: this year it is set to sign a partnership agreement with the EU that will gradually bring Moldova into the EU’s sphere of influence.

As a city, Chisinau may lack the architectural charm of many of Europe’s other capitals – it was, after all, an industrial hub for much of its existence – but there are many stunning churches, great parks and a sprawling central market, not to mention plenty of intriguing Soviet-era touches to feast your eyes on.

A comfortable bed

Chisinau isn't exactly blessed with an abundance of five-star hotels, but there are a growing number of luxury places in which to stay during any visit to the city. Check out the city's own Savoy Hotel (; 0037 3 22 21 02 15), which opened in 2012. Rooms start from €160 (Dh808) per night. Or the Hotel Codru (; 0037 3 22 20 81 04), right in the heart of downtown and a few minutes' walk from the parks and main boulevards of the city. Rooms start from as little as €85 (Dh429) a night including taxes and breakfast. Alternatively, indulge in the old-world elegance of the centrally located Nobil Luxury Boutique Hotel (; 0037 3 22 40 04 00), where rooms start from €200 (Dh1,110) per night. The room terraces offer impressive views out over the city.

Find your feet

Chisinau is a great city for walking. Start at Cathedral Square, the heart of the city, to see the ornate Nativity Cathedral and locals standing around playing chess on giant chessboards in the early evening. Then head over to Chisinau’s own Arc de Triomphe, built in 1841, before crossing over to the Soviet-era Government House and the museum quarter behind it. Finally, take a stroll down Stefan Cel Mare Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare and home to many of the city’s best restaurants and coolest buildings.

Meet the locals

English proficiency is still sorely lacking in Moldova, but head to one of the many leafy parks around the capital and you may get a chance to converse with some of those who gather in the early evening to relax and catch up with friends. If nothing else, you can watch as the older people play chess and card games while members of the younger generation sit around on laptops enjoy the parks’ free Wi-Fi.

Book a table

The elegant Vatra Neamului on Pushkin Street, right next to Government House, has a reputation for the best Moldovan food in the city. Try some of the thick vegetable soups and heavy meat dishes from a menu that seems to just go on and on. A meal for two, accompanied by live musical entertainment, will cost in the region of €25-€40 (Dh125-Dh200). Alternatively, if you want to dine with the locals, try the brightly decorated La Placinta (No. 182 Stefan Cel Mare Boulevard), a boisterous restaurant serving varieties of placinte (pastry filled with either savoury or sweet filling) at affordable prices. Dishes cost around €2-€3 (Dh10-Dh15) each. Those really feeling adventurous can head to Chisinau’s sprawling central market for some of the freshest produce in the country.

Shopper’s paradise

If you are looking for the latest fashion, head over to MallDOVA; for everything else simply head to the central market. At the heart of Chisinau a full city block is dedicated to stalls offering everything from fresh cheeses and vegetables to local candy, snacks and meats. Produce arrives daily, and especially in the morning the market is a crowded place filled with locals.

What to avoid

At night there is little street lighting in Chisinau, so when possible stick to the main roads to avoid potholes and loose paving stones. Also, Moldova has long had a reputation for scamming unwary visitors, so be on your guard when approached by strangers, buying tickets, or simply taking a taxi ride.

Don’t miss

No trip to Moldova is complete without a quick day trip to the breakaway Republic of Transnistria. A 90-minute drive from Chisinau on Moldova’s eastern boundary near the Dniester River, Transnistria declared its independence from the rest of the country after the break from the Soviet Bloc. A brief civil war ensued in 1992, but since then there has been an awkward peace between the Russian-speaking region and the rest of the country. A few hours wandering around the “other capital of Moldova”, Tiraspol, is like a step back into Soviet Russia, with hammer-and-sickle flags flying nearby heroic statues of Lenin, Yuri Gagarin and others.

Go there

FlyDubai ( flies direct from Dubai to Chisinau from Dh1,675 return including taxes.

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